Life after cancer: Trying to find a balance

It has been just over two months since my last chemo session. Although Adam has has unexplained abdominal pain for three months now, I’ve been doing my best to start fitting some normal activities back into my life. I took two good, long road bike rides to kick off my training for the BC Ride to Conquer Cancer that I’m doing in June — one on the weekend, 32km or so around North Vancouver, East Van, and Stanley Park, and another on Tuesday, riding home from work in Gastown to Port Moody, which is around 25km. This week I had my first-ever actual guitar lesson, since I’ve reached a point in my playing where I would like to improve my technique (or possibly even learn some). My brain is starting to feel like it’s firing on all cylinders, finally, after months of a forgetful haze where I felt like every thought was being dredged through molasses.

The clarity in my mind has been a welcome change, especially with regards to work. I started a new job a month before I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. It was another month before I started treatment. Instead of going through the usual process of learning my new role, picking up new skills needed for the job, learning internal processes, and figuring out where I fit in the grand scheme of the organization, I got distracted by things like confirming a diagnosis, going through test after test, getting a treatment plan, unexpectedly weaning a toddler earlier than planned, and actually starting chemotherapy. It was difficult.

My memory is muddy, what’s this river that I’m in?

I kept on working as much as I could through the chemotherapy experience because it gave me some focus that wasn’t the cancer, or how terrible the treatments made me feel. Looking back now, with a clear head and a different perspective on everything, is a strange thing for me. Instead of that six months of figuring out where I fit, I’ve found that my first six months at work are a haze. I feel like I’m effectively starting at this position now instead of last August.

This week we had a retrospective discussion about a project that I worked on over the winter (though not in a principal role) and I couldn’t remember what I did. I know there were things that I did to support the project, and I remember being involved in it, but it’s like there’s a hole in my memory — a gap where the details should be. Looking back on that with a clear head it’s become obvious that the entire six months of diagnosis, tests, and treatment are a muddled haze of feeling physically awful, incapable, and forgetful. It’s frustrating to have a shroud over my memories.

Once again I feel incredibly lucky to be working with the co-workers and organization that I am, because they can’t have known how useless I would be during treatment, but they put up with me anyway. They gave me things to do, they respected the fact that I wasn’t at 100%, and they gave me the room I needed to get better without making me feel like I was a burden. And they barely knew me; I never had a chance to really prove my value before this all began.

Now that I’ve started to feel more like a functional human being, my lack of capacity over the past six months has started to bother me. I feel like I actually just started this job a couple of weeks ago, and my lack of real contributions up to this point had me feeling a bit depressed and anxious over the last few weeks. It’s frustrating, this feeling that I’m so far behind where I should really be after eight months of a job. I have to remind myself that six months of that time — the six months I normally reserve for learning and settling in to any new job — were commandered by captain cancer. I’m back at square one, starting fresh and new, and trying to find my place, to fit into the appropriate gaps and figure out where I can contribute the most with my skills and strengths. I’m finding it a challenge, though, and have had to fight a bit of anxiety/depression over it.

I didn’t expect that the experiences of my treatment and its side effects, like the mental fog I had the entire time I was in chemo, would only be accessible as memories through a translucent curtain. The memories are there. The detail is not. I’m glad I wrote about it all, because otherwise so much of it would have been lost. I can’t entirely recall how I felt emotionally, although I have body memories, like the drugs burning my veins, and the thick headed feeling I got from the extra saline they pumped into me before the port was installed, and that queasy feeling in the back of my throat that was my constant companion for months, and how the chemo side-effect drugs made me shaky. The physical memories may be more clear than the experiential ones.

But moving on to some random thoughts…

Jennylee and family
We’re getting on with our lives as best we can.

By some coincidence, although it does represent my tastes, for my three PET scans I chose three Canadian bands to listen to while the radioactive dye made its way through me: Delerium, Barenaked Ladies, and the Tragically Hip. This is a random detail that amuses me and that I want to remember. I couldn’t tell you why, or why I need to write it down here; I think I just want to make sure I don’t forget.

Today I started to wonder a bit about blood and organ donation: can I still donate blood or organs when I’ve had cancer? After doing a bit of research I found that, for some blood cancers (like Lymphoma, which I had) they don’t allow you to donate, at least not in some countries. I couldn’t find an absolute rule for Canadian blood donors, however. Either way, in Canada they do want you to be at least five years in remission before you donate blood.

As for organs; well, I couldn’t find much on that at all, except that maybe you could donate organs but maybe not. I couldn’t narrow down the exact cases for either side.

This makes me strangely sad. The idea of donating blood is currently a disturbing one, just because the physical memory of IVs and such make me queasy and uncomfortable and makes my arms feel a bit sore even though they’re not. However, I wouldn’t rule it out in the long term just for that reason. For as long as I can remember, though, I’ve had an organ donor card or been registered for donation. The knowledge that pieces of me could be used to save another person has been comforting to me. It didn’t occur to me until today that that could be taken away because of cancer.

But at least I can still happily donate my body to science when I’m done with it. Dear family and friends; in case I haven’t mentioned it, please donate my body to science, should the opportunity arise and I don’t need it anymore. I mean it.

Otherwise in our lives, Adam’s been sick. We can’t really get back to a normal life until he’s not in pain anymore. That likely won’t happen until they figure out what’s wrong with him and it’s kind of exhausting for both of us. But in the meantime we do the best we can.

2 Comments

  • robinpuga

    April 17, 2014 at 11:16 pm

    You rock! It’s great working with you. You’re making me want to re-coin the term NAN = No Anxiety Needed. 🙂

    Regarding the latter part of your post; SCIENCE!!!

    Much love,
    Robin

  • arianek

    April 18, 2014 at 9:52 pm

    Try not to be too hard on yourself about being up to speed at work. It’ll all start falling into place soon enough, and you know you’ve got a great bunch of people there! Getting out of the brain fog will surely help a ton too.